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Saving the Delta Queen
Tom Koppel - Click to Enlarge
Tom Koppel

“Don’t worry,” said the man from the cruise company. “I’m only phoning to assure you that your sailing is still on, as scheduled.”

My wife and I had booked a trip on the venerable paddlewheeler  Delta Queen.  In just a week, we were flying to Little Rock to spend a week steamboating the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. 

“Why would I be worried?”  I chuckled nervously.  “Well,” he replied, “I thought you might have heard the news.  The company has filed for Chapter Eleven bankruptcy protection.”

This was last October.  The company had been having financial problems, and September 11 dealt the final blow.

We had already cruised once on the reigning monarch of the Mississippi and its tributaries, and had loved it.  It would be hard not to. The Delta Queen is a genuine American institution, 75 years old in 2002 and officially a National Historic Landmark.  A special act of Congress exempts her from certain fire regulations because her superstructure is mainly wood.  She has hosted celebrities from Helen Hayes to Johnny Cash, from Princess Margaret to Jimmy Carter.

Built in California for the Sacramento River but moved to the Mississippi system in 1947, the Queen is a celebration of Victorian style.  She is trimmed out in mahogany and brass, with Tiffany lampshades, crystal chandeliers and grand staircases.  Intimate for a commercial vessel, a maximum of 174 passengers enjoy all outside cabins furnished with antiques.

The tone is timeless elegance and serenity.  No gambling, video games or TV.  No phones in cabins.  For early wakeups, a steward knocks and brings you coffee and pastries.  There is plenty of live music and nightly dancing, but little of the typical cruise ship “are we having fun yet” pressure.  Excellent lectures inform about local history and river wildlife.  But many passengers are content simply watching the levees slip past from their rocking chairs.

The vessel we boarded for our early November trip was still the class act we expected: smart, clean and well maintained.  Officers and staff did their stiff-upper-lip best to ignore the bankruptcy and get on with the job.  We cruised placidly up the Arkansas to Fort Smith, a frontier outpost on the Oklahoma border, where we spent a day and night. 

Along the route, people turned out to hail the Queen, and we returned the favor.  At each bridge or river lock our keyboard meister Jazzou Jones poured out “America the Beautiful” or “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” or “Dixie” on the steam calliope.  Drivers stopped their cars to get out and wave.  Kids jumped, frolicked and hooted.  With our flags whipping in the breeze, we were a floating carnival.

But for all the efforts to keep spirits high, we were sailing under a a dark cloud.  Terrorism meant tight security.  No guests or farewell parties allowed.  Photo IDs were required for re-boarding at ports of call.  Dams and locks along the Arkansas were cordoned off and guarded.  Near a nuclear station, anti-aircraft missiles were poised.  Because this might be the Queen’s last cruise to towns that know her well, TV and press reporters turned out in force.

Draped over the rail on each side were large, colorful banners, “Save the Delta Queen.”  It seemed like a cry of desperation.  Everyone knew this could be the swansong for a vessel we had come to love.  For Captain Mike Williams, it was his last week.  Another skipper would take the helm until year’s end.  Then the boat would be tied up while the bankruptcy court decided her fate.  Our purveyor of river history and lore, Toots Maloy, and her banjo-picking entertainer husband Mike Gentry, both of them veterans of decades with the company, also faced an indefinite layoff.  Most kitchen and dining room workers were African Americans from New Orleans with many years on the river, secure jobs not easily replaced.

The Delta Queen herself had always been a popular and profitable boat, so there were bitter mutterings about who was to blame.  Until the early 1990s, she and her newer and larger sister, the Mississippi Queen, belonged to a small, private New Orleans company with roots back to 1890.  This meant friendly continuity that passengers appreciated.  One couple we befriended have sailed on the Queen more than forty times, even celebrating their golden anniversary on a cruise. They got to know the officers and crew so well that each time they boarded it was like coming home.

But 1992 saw the company go public and expand rapidly under the name American Classic Voyages.  A third, giant steamboat was built for the Mississippi and a large liner was purchased for Hawaiian cruises.  In the latter 1990s, with federal funding guarantees, new ships were built to cruise the Columbia River and the US East Coast.  Keels were laid for two giant ships aimed at a nearly saturated Hawaiian market.  Delays and cost-overruns plagued these liners.  Meanwhile, management was being moved from New Orleans to Florida, creating further upheaval.

The 2001 economic downturn dented an already tight cash flow.  September 11 killed off half the bookings.  Now US taxpayers are on the hook for more than $ 200 million, while over 2000 employees have lost their jobs, plus another 1000 at the Mississippi shipyard with the unfinished ships.  A sad debacle.

The last two days of the cruise we spent heading upstream on the Mississippi to Memphis.  Disembarking, with farewells to new-found friends, is always sad.  But this time was especially poignant.  We had looked forward to taking one of the Civil War trips along the Tennessee River in the next few years.  And perhaps steaming far up the Ohio to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh.  But now, we wondered, would it ever happen?

So it was a wonderful surprise after Christmas to learn that there was still hope.  An emergency management team is trying to re-create the small, niche Delta Queen Steamboat company of old, based in New Orleans and operating only the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen.  And former Delta Queen lounge pianist and chanteuse, Phyllis Dale, now a travel agent, is spearheading a grassroots PR campaign to “Save Our Queens.”  So far, she has gathered nearly 2000 letters of support, mainly from former passengers.  With the help of other former employees and loyal long-time passengers, and by using a website and chatline, she is lobbying celebrities, politicians and chambers of commerce, especially in the river towns that have benefited from the steamboat traffic.

The federal bankruptcy court has tentatively approved the corporate reorganization plan.  The Mississippi Queen is now scheduled to start running again in May, with the Delta Queen following in August.  To reassure travel agents and individuals that booking with the pared-down company is safe, all monies go into an escrow account and will not be disbursed until the sailing.

The romance of the Delta Queen is infectious.  With any luck, the tradition of steamboating will be alive for many more years on the rivers of America’s heartland.

For cruise schedules and reservations, the website address is:, or phone 800-543-1949.

For information on this unique campaign, the website address is:

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Email: (TOM KOPPEL) 

Tom Koppel is Canadian freelance writer and author with more than 15 years of travel writing experience, including features in Travel Holiday, Financial Post Magazine, Canadian Living, Historic Traveler, Beautiful B.C., Western Living, Country Inns, Reader's Digest, Georgia Straight, Porthole, Islands etc. Tom is now working on his third book as well. (More about this writer.)


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